U.S. president George Bush fixed one eye on Iraq and the Middle East during his state of the union address, as everyone noticed, but another eye on the American Midwest, which almost everyone missed. The Midwest is the heartland of America, but also its feedlot. And feedlot politics are as central to Bush's "compassionate conservatism' on the home front as his kick-ass conservatism is in his foreign policy.
Since food is too mundane to figure in grand theories and punditry, it's rarely seen as central to either geopolitics or domestic politics. But every military superpower in history has had to do something special about food -- partly to organize the feeding of troops in faraway lands and partly to maintain some sort of balance of payments when so much of the economy is based on imports of booty and exports of economically unproductive soldiers and munitions.
It seems odd that food and agriculture command such huge government expenditures in U.S. budgets, second only to the military. And perhaps just as odd that two of the key politicians with their hands on the Bush-directed government deficit spree come from Iowa -- Representative Jim Nussle, chair of the House budget committee and Senator Charles Grassley, chair of the Senate's finance committee.
Shortly after George Bush passed his $190-billion Farm Bill in 2000, I bugged all the U.S. delegates I could buttonhole at a food conference to explain to me why an industrially advanced country like the U.S. was spending so much money to subsidize agriculture.
It's pretty simple, I was told. Ever since the 1970s, when the U.S. started losing its manufacturing industries to the low-wage Third World, the U.S. has suffered from a terrible balance-of-payments problem because it imports so many industrial goods and exports so few. Only 10 per cent of America's gross domestic product comes from exports.
So U.S. economic strategy strives to counterbalance that outflow of money for industrial imports with an outflow of products based in sectors where the U.S. has a commanding lead: munitions and aerospace, information and entertainment -- and food. Food represents 12.7 per cent of U.S. exports ($53 billion dollars), mostly to Japan, the EU, Canada, Mexico and Korea.
Who could possibly match the U.S. in food exports? There's topsoil that's only been farmed for a century or two, not millennia as in much of the Third World. There's expensive equipment that the lowest-waged Third World workers can't match for productivity. There are huge expanses of barely populated land where chemicals can be loaded on and no one sees or complains. And there are export subsidies that no Third World country, or even a Canada suited to grain and meat, can begin to match.
The focus on agricultural exports leads U.S. foreign policy toward unilateralism, not to mention rogue-state status, one of the hallmaraks of the Bush presidency. The U.S. refuses to sign international treaties protecting nature's biodiversity, because protecting this doesn't sit well with genetic engineering.
The U.S. refuses to sign on to the Kyoto measures to reduce the burning of fossil fuels. The U.S. uses a quarter of the world's fossil fuels, and not just because of soccer moms and dweeb dads in SUVs. It's because export agriculture is fundamentally an edible-oil product -- oil and gas are key to fertilizers, pesticides, tractors, packages, the trucks that haul food and the freezers. About a third of global warming emissions come from the food cycle, not that anyone would know it from the public debate around Kyoto, in which food, as usual, is ignored.
And at least half of the world's starving are farmers or former farmers driven into bankruptcy as a result of their inability to compete with subsidized U.S. food imports, although the Bush admin refuses to sign on to United Nations declarations on the right of all people to food. Indeed, representatives of the world's 850 million starving people, or of the 16,000 children who die from starvation each day without any media fanfare, might not be stretching the truth too much by identifying the U.S. food export strategy as a weapon of mass destruction.
How does this fit with Bush's crusade for "compassionate conservatism," a central element of his state of the union address and the subject of a presidential executive order in December that unleashed what Bush called "armies of compassion," a turn of phrase revealing a truly troubled psyche?
A critical element of this strategy is using faith organizations, instead of governments, to deliver social programs such food distribution. This way the U.S. can evade prohibitions of the World Trade Organization, which doesn't look kindly on government support programs that exclusively subsidize local agriculture. Right now, the U.S. government is WTO-vulnerable because it buys up farm surpluses and distributes them to school meal and food-stamp programs, and to food banks. Keeping the faith and subcontracting to religious organizations would mean the U.S. feds are better positioned to get through WTO rules. By contrast, Canada, which uses supply management systems to avoid surpluses, is WTO-illegal.
Not that the politics of oil aren't crucial to what's driving Washington these days, but the politics of edible oil should also be recognized, along with an alternative world-saving economic and social strategy based on local and community food security.